THE DRAGON WAKES
The Dragon Wakes explores often sobering realities behind China’s global rise to fame, interacting with citizens whose ancestors helped galvanize a modern China, yet who rarely travel further than the borders of their home province.
An ancient culture
One of the Earth’s oldest civilizations, the Chinese not only invented the compass and gunpowder but also printing and paper making, four resources that changed the course of global history. China has long housed a cocktail of sub-cultures, ethnic minorities and deep-rooted traditions that shed light on China’s past, present and future.
This ancient and often conservative culture still permeates through the high-rise cities of 21st century China. Ornate temples, grand palaces and narrow winding lanes interweave with glass sky scrapers, Ferraris and Starbucks with an uneasy elegance. Despite Mao’s best efforts his Red Guard were not able to destroy this resilient culture, indeed much of it remains today in one form or another.
Standing within the world’s second largest economy it is often surprising to see a more traditional way of life playing out alongside the modern. Elderly men whittle away the hours playing Mahjong, whilst women of all ages tend the paddy fields from dusk to dawn. These rural comrades contrast dramatically with the privately educated urbanites in sharp business suits rushing around the manic subway systems. China is a country of contrasts, and the class gaps within society are widening at an alarming rate.
Mao’s proclamation, ‘Women hold up half the sky’, aimed to highlight the importance of women’s role in the growth of society and over time there was an improvement in the position of women in Chinese society. However, in a country where gender roles remain strong, there is little room for maneuver for either men or women. Workplaces are commonly reported to be rife with sexism, racism and ageism with few avenues for petition.
The beauty of China’s natural environment is awe-inspiring; whether it’s the peaks of the Himalayas or the endless sand of the Gobi Desert, the contrast with the industrial, high-rise buildings of the east coast is remarkable.
As one travels west across China, you’ll notice that populations and infrastructure become sparse. As the terrain becomes more challenging you can travel for miles without seeing a soul, a strange phenomenon in a country with over 1.3 billion people!
A resilient workplace
People are arguably China’s greatest asset; 1.3 billion reasons that attracted foreign investment and began to drive the cogs of this giant powerhouse in the 1980s under the rule of Deng Xiaoping. Families are often separated for months or years at a time as the younger generation migrate to the cities in search of better paid jobs, in what is the largest migration of humans in modern history.
Not everyone works in the relatively high-tech factories of the east coast. Many rural dwellers live and work in conditions that have changed very little over the centuries. In these rural areas the remaining family, young and very old, have to come together to help bring in a living income.
A change of pace
China is developing on many levels at an unparalleled pace. Buildings are raised in a matter of days, neighborhoods created in months, technology startups litter the airwaves. However, as quickly as a new shop or restaurant appears it can disappear, nothing seems fixed; there is a constant ebb and flow of construction and development. Architects from around the world are lured in by attractive contracts to design the newest and most ingenious buildings.
The bicycles of yesteryear have been replaced in the major cities by the electric bike in an attempt to speed-up travel without the noise and pollution of motorbikes. This has only been somewhat successful since the rapidly growing middle class has chosen the car as its transportation of choice.
Without a doubt, the younger generation is leading the technological charge across the country, effortlessly adapting their skills as they go, while the older generation works hard to keep up with the changes, especially in China’s urban centers.
Technology hardware, however, is discarded as quickly as it’s adopted, but often collected and reused by others who are not as fortunate to be able to afford the ‘lastest’ models – recycling in its most natural form.
The great push
There is a saying between construction workers in Tianjin that ‘for every crane you see there have been an average of 40 deaths on that building site’, the more cranes the more deaths. From the 20th floor of our apartment block in southern Tianjin we spot at least 35 cranes peering out from the smoggy air, their little red lights blinking in the dusk and long metal arms drifting slowly from one side to the other. 1,400 people dead. Whilst this number may well be an exaggeration, the message that it sends is unequivocal; the rapid construction, lack of health and safety laws alongside site managers unwilling to put the safety of their workers ahead of profit is killing men and women.
With the industrial development of China’s eastern seaboard we have watched old environments destroyed while new ones built at an incredible pace. The demand for concrete is now so severe that billionaires are created overnight just for suppling the government agencies with enough water and sand to continue this ‘progress’.
A fragile ecosystem
The aggressive development of China’s economy through industrial reform has come at great cost to their environment, a fact few could deny. Air, water and soil pollution have left vast areas uninhabitable and health scares regularly make international news headlines. The air quality index measures micro-particulate matter trapped in the air, and on the curb of Marylebone Road in London, Britain’s most polluted locale, the scale typically tips 80 on a bad day. This is a stark contrast with Beijing which can reach over 1000, as swathes of polluted dark clouds hang silently over hundreds of miles of cityscape. It’s the monster that breeds a medical disaster.
Less known is China’s progressive investment into renewable energies. In the last ten years, Beijing has made great efforts to reduce air pollution by building a defensive wall of millions of young trees, all grown in southern China and transported for planting around the capital. The results have been noticeably effective, so much so that tree planting continues at a rate of knots.
Trillion dollar tourism
“80 percent of domestic Chinese tourists are in 20 percent of the places”, states the guide book. The famous destinations are notoriously crowded as internal tourism has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. However, in order to escape the suffocating crowds, a short walk away from the main site can often offer surprising relief.
If one hopes to take a quiet break on the national holidays then one can think again; the national holidays are the busiest – during the Golden Week holiday in October 2013 Macau was the most densely populated place on earth! This drive by the central government to increase domestic tourism has boosted GNP and there is no sign of a slow down; municipalities battle one another for this lucrative market in an attempt to reach their astronomically high quarterly targets set by central government. China is pitching provinces against each other in order to take advantage of the growing wealth of the middle class.
The Battle for control
China’s economy is set to become the world’s largest within the decade. However, political change has not kept pace with economic growth and China’s relationship with other world powers has, at times, become strained. Ensuring Chinas rise is a peaceful one is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time, but the country appears to finally be taking its place in the global village. Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Alibaba now compete with Apple and eBay, and for many The Chinese Dream remains very much alive. Back home there are also some positive signs, such as Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption drive which looks to address one the main grievances of ordinary Chinese people.
It would have been extremely difficult to have predicted China’s rise on the world’s stage 40 years ago and it is equally foolish to try to forecast the next 40.
Four Corners of China – Three generations of change – Two Battered Nikons – One Photographer
Barnaby Jaco Skinner LRPS
Tianjin May 2015 – Brighton July 2015 – Vienna September 2015
10 discrete images sets composed of over 50 original award-winning pictures, a modern collection depicting China in it’s current state. Covering topics from ancient history through industrialization and the environment, this exhibition aims to educate as well as amaze. With a core message of ‘where too next?’ The Dragon Wakes assembles an introduction to the people, landscapes, government strongholds and secret backstreets of this Asian powerhouse.
Shot over four years (2011 to 2015) in all four corners of the global powerhouse, the subject matter edges towards portraits of the under privileged and ethnic minority, those whom are not on traditional tourist routes, often taking inspiration from the ideology of China’s struggle through harder times and on to the global stage. Shot in Beijing, Tianjin, Xin Jiang, Shanghai, Shangri-La, Kunming, Hong Kong and Macau, The Dragon Wakes explores often sobering realities behind China’s global rise to fame, interacting with citizens whose ancestors helped galvanize a modern China, yet who rarely travel further than the borders of their home province.